Currently Showing via Amazon VOD
Director: Ian Fitzgibbon
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 5/10
Few films I’ve recently seen are quite as frustrating as Death of a Superhero; and frustrating films are difficult to review. Developed from a novel of the same name by its author Anthony McCarten, the film tells the story of a terminally ill 15-year-old boy named Donald who is struggling to cope with his mortality. That he is going thru puberty during this trying medical crisis does not help matters. The story is so full of potential and yet never reaches the heights to which it seems perfectly capable. The opening scenes are wonderful, but the film never quite delivers after the first 10 to 15 minutes.
Shown at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and then at the Tribeca Film Festival, Death of a Superhero was very well received and the distribution rights were purchased by Tribeca Film. Of course, the subject matter has been seen in a variety of films – an individual with terminal cancer who struggles with his or her own mortality and learns to cope (if possible) or give up and welcome death. A high school teenager facing death from a terminal disease is not a new topic for the film world. His parentally mandated visits with a unique psychiatrist who refuses to give up on him and with who he forms a friendship is also not new ground. His feelings of isolation and that an untimely death is a certainty are also not earth-shattering themes. He also discovers an interesting and open-minded girl he likes in school and wants to experience sex before he succumbs to cancer. All of these are clichés in the world of film, television, and print.
What is unique is Donald’s apparent coping mechanism – he creates amazing drawings in a comic book style that feature him as an invincible superhero. The contradiction is obvious. Why would he see himself in this way when he’s all but given up the fight to live? I believe that contradiction drives the film; but to what destination it is driven is difficult to explain and understand. The film’s most clever element is the use of animation as Donald’s drawings are played out in the film. His alter ego battles what appear to be a maniacal “doctor” and clearly what is a psychotic nurse. This element is sadly underused; more of the extraordinary animation would have greatly enhanced the film’s overall impact.
The primary performances are generally solid – particularly authentic and touching. The ill teen, Donald, is wonderfully brought to life by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. His psychiatrist is nicely underplayed by Andy Serkis who finally appears in a film as himself after so many appearances as a motion-captured artist. The young woman he finds so fascinating and attractive is beautifully done by Aisling Loftus. In rather formulaic roles, Donald’s parents are also well played by Michael McElhatton and Sharon Horgan. In a character-driven story like this one, the performances are essential.
The performances are therefore not the problem. It is the script and editing that falter. I never thought I would knock a film for being overly simplistic in its storytelling. However, the story’s elements are scattershot, the scenes incomplete, and the overall feeling of the film is that it is generally unfinished. Herein lays the primary frustration in viewing the film. You desperately want the scenes to be better and continue; they are all far too curtailed for some as-yet-to-be-understood-by-me reason. Perhaps we are meant to read into the film and fill in the blanks ourselves. While I have no problem with this minimalistic approach in general, I do not think it works well for this particular story. With a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, there was certainly more room for exposition and a deeper examination of Donald and his relationships both to himself and others as well as to his own impending death.